Moving Beyond the Betrayal: Why Some Couples Are Able to Get Past a Partner’s Infidelity More Easily than Others
Infidelity and affairs in marriage and our committed relationships have been around forever and will continue to be so. No couple, however happy and well suited to each other, can completely escape the possibility of it happening to them. Most affairs are conducted in secret and end of their own accord without being brought to the attention of the other partner. Here the meaning of the affair and its effect on the individual and the relationship – whether good or bad or both – remains something that the person having the affair must come to terms with alone or with the help of a trusted confidant.
Affairs that are discovered by or disclosed to the primary partner or spouse are a very different phenomenon, often creating a crisis in their relationship that can challenge both of their capacities of endurance. What is it that permits some couples to eventually move beyond the intense anger, hurt, guilt and shame that often occur when there is an affair, while others remain caught in the grip of these negative feelings and their relationship seems damaged forever? I’ve worked for several decades now with couples seeking help following the disclosure or discovery of an affair. Yet I still remain surprised by the wide range of emotional responses and coping strategies people use to recover from this all-too-common occurrence.
Our views on infidelity are shaped, to an important degree, by our gender, sexual orientation, culture, and generation. Even today, men tend to be more upset by the sexual aspects of the betrayal, while women are more sensitive to their partner’s turning away from them to the affair partner for emotional intimacy. In this post-romantic age, our younger cohorts – those in their 20s and 30s – have come of age where internet pornography and cybersex is the norm. Consequently, they are less likely than older couples to view a partner’s use of such sites as a transgression of their promised vows. Same-sex committed couples, in general, adhere less often to norms of strict sexual exclusivity. Moreover, they are more likely to have openly discussed and worked out explicit agreements about what is permissible, revising these along the way as their needs and circumstances change. Still, when one partner acts in a way contrary to their common understanding, there often follows the same upset and confusion more typical of their heterosexual counterparts.
An affair is not an affair is not an affair – meaning that the nature of an affair itself, including how long it lasts, who the affair partner is, where it took place, whether it has really ended, how it came to be revealed, and the degree of secrecy and deception required to execute it – will shape the recovery process. When the affair partner is someone known to the other spouse, or even more hurtful, is someone valued as a long-time friend or relative, the felt betrayal is doubly damaging. Long-term affairs are more destructive to the primary relationship, in that the intimacy bond with the lover tends to grow stronger over time through their continued sharing of confidences, while that with the spouse or primary partner is weakened. Moreover, the longer the affair goes on the more the attendant lies necessary to conceal it. For many couples, this build up of lies is the worst part of the affair, often more hurtful and confusing than the sexual betrayal itself.
Certainly the psychological health and well-being of the individual partners prior to the affair play an important role in the recovery process. Recent research on infidelity has examined early childhood factors and, in particular, the attachment histories of both partners with primary parental figures. Those partners with insecure attachment histories seem to have the most difficulty regulating their emotions. Intense negative affect and emotional volatility, so common during the period soon after disclosure/discovery, tend to be more prolonged for those individuals. Moreover, these intensely negative emotions also distort their thinking about their partner and the affair in a highly polarizing, all-or-none way that further erodes trust and a more hopeful attitude about the possibility of recovery. In contrast, more securely attached individuals are more capable of accepting an imperfect and tarnished record of fidelity, tolerating an occasional sexual lapse in their long-term commitments without calling into question the viability of the relationship as a whole.
Another and probably even more important factor in determining recovery from infidelity has to do with the quality of the marriage and strength of the couple bond prior to the affair. Contrary to popular assumption, affairs do happen in good marriages. Those couples who have enjoyed a rich and deeply meaningful life together in the past are more likely to have the desire and the wherewithal necessary to work through this thorny issue. When the emotional tie between partners is a weak one, often caused by years of chronic conflict eroding a more positive connection, they may lack the skill and good will necessary to sustain the effort to heal.
When an affair occurs amidst the emotional turmoil from some other family crisis – for example, the birth of a handicapped child or the death of a close family member – the intensity of emotional upset and feelings of betrayal and abandonment by the uninvolved partner are likely to be stronger and more prolonged. “How could you do this to me when I was already suffering and in so much pain?” is the frequent protest. Although affairs often take place during a marital or family crisis, sometimes in a vain attempt by the involved partner to escape the pain or their own feelings of isolation from their marital partner at such times, this fact is likely to offer little consolation to their mate.
In my experience, what best distinguishes those couples who are able to eventually restore a healthy bond – or perhaps create one for the first time – is a dedicated persistence and a quality of “stick-to-itness” with which both parties approach the repair work. Alongside this factor is the need for realistic expectations about the often slow process of restoring trust and patience with the hard work required by the betrayed partner to curtail his or her obsessive thinking. “Two steps forward and one backward” is the norm in the often haphazard healing process.
A willingness to jointly engage in more constructive conversation about what has happened to them, wherein they examine their individual and relationship vulnerabilities, wherever they exist, is also important to imagining a viable future together and lessening the risk of repeated affairs. Although most couples will continue to aspire to a sexually monogamous ideal, others may elect to open their relationship to other possibilities, especially so in situations where one partner has a variant sexual pattern previously kept secret from the partner.
Certainly, some couples will be able to engage in useful discussion on their own once all contact with the affair partner has ended and a sense of safety has been restored to their relationship. Others get stuck in unhealthy, polarized debates that leave them feeling discouraged and hopeless. Repeated acts of retaliation or revenge by the injured partner can only further weaken their couple bond and need to be swiftly curtailed. Sadly, some people are unable to refrain from such retaliatory acts of cruelty and humiliation, even if their actions only serve to drive their partner away.
Couples caught in the grip of such unhealthy and destructive patterns should think about consulting a therapist knowledgeable about these matters. The couples therapist can help them to manage and work through their intensely negative emotions in less destructive ways and can help provide a safe context from which to have a more helpful and meaningful dialogue about the affair and their relationship as a whole. Along these lines, the hurt partner can learn to ask questions in a manner that sounds less like a prosecuting attorney and is, in turn, likely to be met with less defensiveness by the other partner. In turn, the other partner can learn how to stay connected with and offer emotional support to the hurt partner, even when they don’t fully understand the partner’s reactions. This work can lead to greater understanding of their individual and joint needs and is crucial to their making wiser choices about their future – whether they remain together or eventually separate – ones that will not be later tinged with so much regret.